It has been a difficult few weeks for Nigerians in the country and across the diaspora. Young Nigerians, frustrated by the excesses of Nigerian law enforcement at all levels and particularly with the violent excesses and disregard for human rights by the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), took to the streets, crippling major roads across the country with significant economic interest to the government through decentralized peaceful protests. They started with a call for the disbandment of SARS units across the country and expanded their demands to include the failings of government at the state and federal level.
While violence by state agents is a nationwide problem, Lagos, the commercial epicentre of the country has seen a disproportionate amount of citizen protests asking for the disbandment of the SARS unit and a reform of law enforcement as a whole in Nigeria. Successive Lagos state governors have had to respond to these agitations and Governor Babajide Sanwo-olu drew from the collective wealth of experience available to him to address the protesters of the 2020 #EndSARS movement, outlining the actions within his control and acting as an envoy between the protesters and the federal government where power over the Nigerian police force is couched.
The Federal government’s initial response, which was to finally disband the SARS unit, after several failed restructurings was met with distrust, particularly because of the continued presence of the disbanded unit on Nigerian roads. It didn’t help that much of the communication used by the government to advance its new position was recycled from previous interventions, angering the protest youth and inspiring them to counter with a simple but carefully articulated 5 point action plan, dubbed ‘5 for 5’. Accountability for alleged crimes levelled against SARS officials and members of other Nigerian Police units was a major concern.
In response to the ‘5 for 5’ manifesto, state governments across the nation have assembled judiciary inquiry panels to investigate alleged violence meted against protesters as well as lingering cases against law enforcement officials. A core requirement of the panels was that its proceedings across states would be open to the public and where possible livestreamed. Protesters also demanded that citizen representatives be invited to sit on the panels to protect the interests of protesters) as a core component of the mediation, the panels serve as the most immediate opportunity for redress for angry and grieving protesters.
The Lagos state government was the first to organize its panel, understandable considering the protests began in the state and spread outwards. The governor, Babajide Sanwo-olu has worked to ensure the government’s influence on the panel is minimal and the rights of citizens who come forward with their accusations against law enforcement are not threatened in any way.
As with all judicial panels, the Lagos state judicial panel on law enforcement has a sitting judge to oversee its proceedings, and the judge has the capacity to recommend cases be furthered to criminal court. Individuals and organizations accused of complicity or crime are given a fair hearing at the panel and allowed to have legal counsel represent them as seen with the Lekki Concession Co (LCC) and the Lagos state government, both invited to the panel to present CCTV footage from the October 20th shooting of unarmed protesters during the protests. These preliminary hearings are to ascertain the validity and veracity of claims against accused individuals and organizations and to assign cases with merit to the appropriate courts while circumventing the traditional routes to litigation and the often extended discovery process where lawyers assigned to the accused and the accusers prepare for trial.
The most relevant task of the panel is to provide a public forum for victims of police harassment and brutality to publicly share their stories and for those stories to be documented in public archives. By compiling a comprehensive archive, the state government can then create a comprehensive database of accused law enforcement officials who have to disprove the claims levelled against them or lose their positions in the force and face possible criminal litigation. This is very important if a precedent will be set for future law enforcement officers to act within the provisions of the constitution and the duties it outlines for policing.
The Lagos judicial panel is in its early stages and changes are being made to ensure all parties are adequately represented and no bureaucratic or political bottlenecks slow the arbitration process. We will continue to monitor proceedings and share what we learn.